What can I do about climate change?  I’m only a lawyer …

Watching the recent David Attenborough documentary, Climate Change - the facts - provoked a family debate in the Polka household. What can we do to play our part in limiting waste, limiting emissions and respecting the environment?

Until we watched the programme I had always felt reasonably self-righteous when it came to the environment. We’re good citizens, I thought - we have always done our recycling, we don’t generally buy packaged food, we waste little of what we buy, we have reusable shopping bags and we grow our own fruit and vegetables (organically, of course). Watching Climate Change - the facts, it was starkly obvious that this simply isn’t enough. In fact, it’s probably just greenwashing when you look at the areas where we are less than model citizens - such as our gas-guzzling 4x4, in which we clock up 10 000 km each year just taking the kids to their extracurricular activities (our justification was always “well, we have 3 children and live halfway up a mountain”), family holidays and business trips involving aeroplanes (I’m the guiltiest party on that front, as my airline loyalty card testifies), and the fact that we have to buy new clothes and shoes on a frighteningly regular basis as the children will insist on growing out of their old ones (to be fair, that is a genuine need, but is fraught with ethical dilemmas - fashion is so fickle!).

In short, much as we would like to think we’re part of the solution, we are contributing on a daily basis to the problem. So what can we change? The car, for one thing. That’s in the works and we’ll feel better about our contribution when it’s done. (That said, I’m well aware that most of the alternatives are “less bad” rather than actually “good” … what happens to the batteries in an electric car when they reach the end of their life? Were their components obtained from mines in conflict areas?)

Clothes … where to begin? With the needlework skills available in our household, we’re not going to stop needing to buy clothes any time soon. The first challenge is how to find out whether they have been produced ethically and sustainably. My background reading suggests that most clothes haven’t. I have managed to find some independent apps which provide background on some clothing companies, such as whether they have policies to ensure that workers in their supply chains are properly treated or whether they take raw materials from sustainable sources. What can be harder to tell - and I say this as someone with experience of supply chain practices in multinationals - is whether the policies (a) are implemented, and (b) when they are implemented, actually work.

And then there’s palm oil. The day after the Attenborough programme aired, my husband and daughter went shopping. We had completely run out of shampoo and shower gel so it was an ideal opportunity to search for shampoos, soaps and shower gels that didn’t contain palm oil. Net result: they spent over an hour combing the supermarket shelves, while cross-referring to a web page that lists over 200 names for palm oil derived products, only to discover that every single one of them contained palm oil or its derivatives. What is the average consumer supposed to do when faced with that kind of choice? Stop washing? Time to get out that book on making your own cosmetics …

Yet another challenging question is how can I, as a lawyer, actively play a role? Sadly, lawyers are often responsible for protecting companies involved in practices that may be legal, but are distinctly unethical. That’s why top of my action list is encouraging clients to implement a TRUTH. TRUST. RESPECT. action plan. Truth, trust and respect are the foundations of a healthy business, and a healthy business is one where harmful behaviours are not tolerated. The key is building a strong foundation. This is holistic ethics - it goes well beyond complying with the law. It isn’t about writing and enforcing policies; it’s about creating an organisational dynamic that starts with leading by example, helping everyone to meet the expectations you set, and constructively dealing with the elements that tend to undermine trust - namely, fear, dishonesty and disrespectful behaviour.

On the upside, the debate in our family has resulted in a renewed commitment to growing and eating our own produce, and to the children’s active participation in that effort. It’s a start. Changing habits is one of the most difficult tasks in business - any marketing professional will tell you that. Now we need to keep the momentum going. It’s a long haul, but I am full of hope.

We can make the world better if we work together. If you have any ideas on what more we can do - or want to know how I can help you - please get in touch!